swimming, floats, and rafts, nw australia, 1842
Lort Stokes : Swimming, Floats and Rafts, North West
Stokes, J. Lort, Stanley., Owen:
account of the coasts and rivers explored and surveyed
during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle
in the years
1837-38-39-40-41-42-43, by command of the Lords
Commissioners of the Admiralty:
Narrative of Captain Owen Stanley's visits to the islands in
the Arafura Sea
T. and W.
Boone, London, 1846.
Project Gutenberg - Sue Asscher, 2004.
without further detail, that "the raft they use is precisely the
same in make and size on the whole extent of the North-west
However, in 1842
members of his ship encountered two aboriginal women with
several children aboard a raft, "quite a rude affair, formed of
small bundles of wood lashed together, without any shape or
form, quite different from any we had seen before."
crossing between the heads of the East Arm of Port Darwin
("Patterson Bay") of approximately three miles, the raft was
propelled "by four or five men supporting themselves by means of
a log of wood across their chests," a similar the methods of the
mpadua and mpata of Lake
Botsumtwi in West Africa.
that by identifying variations in the use of canoes, "some
light may be thrown on the migration of the aboriginal
inhabitants of Australia."
He notes no
canoes were "seen westward of Clarence Strait, in the bottom of
the Gulf of Carpentaria, nor on the south coast."
In the Torres
Strait, Stokes reported that the natives used outrigger canoes
Magnetic Island Mystery
Finding are large
number of aborigines encamped on Magnetic Island, Stokes was
unsure of how they arrived, as there were no canoes to be seen.
He concluded that
a sandy spit connecting with the mainland "must be sufficiently
shoal at low water to allow the natives to ford over."
The Beagle left England in 1837
under the command of Commander John Clements Wickham, who had
been a Lieutenant on the second voyage.
Lort Stokes was the assistant surveyor, previously serving as a
midshipman on the Beagle's
first voyage and mate and assistant surveyor on the second.
with surveying large sections of the of Australian coast,
they began at the Swan River (modern Perth) and worked north to
the Fitzroy River (approximately Broome).
both shores of Bass Strait , the Beagle sailed north in May 1839 to
survey the shores of the Arafura Sea opposite Timor.
first sighted by Stokes, was named by Wickham, in honour of
their former shipmate Charles Darwin, on 9 October 1839
command in March 1841, after Wickham resigned due to illness,
completing the mission and returning to England in 1843.
- Wikipedia: HMS
Stokes, J. Lort
(John Lort), 1811-1885.;
We were much struck during our stay by the contrast between the
natives here, and those we had seen on the Beagle's former
voyage at King George's Sound.
The comparison was wholly in favour of those living within the
influence of their civilized fellow-men: a fact which may
surprise some of my readers, but for which, notwithstanding, I
am quite prepared to vouch.
A better quality, and more certain supply of food, are the
causes to which this superiority ought to be attributed: they
are indeed exceedingly fond of wheaten bread, and work hard for
the settlers, in cutting wood and carrying water, in order to
obtain it. Individually they appear peaceable, inoffensive, and
well-disposed, and, under proper management, make very good
servants; but when they congregate together for any length of
time, they are too apt to relapse into the vices of savage life.
Among the many useful hints, for which we were indebted to Mr.
Roe, was that of taking a native with us to the northward; and,
accordingly, after some trouble, we shipped an intelligent young
man, named Miago; he proved, in some respects, exceedingly
useful, and made an excellent gun-room waiter.
We noticed that, like most of the natives, he was deeply
scarred, and I learned from him that this is done to recommend
them to the notice of the ladies.
Like all savages, they are treacherous- for uncivilized man has
no abstract respect for truth, and consequently deceit, whether
spoken or acted, seems no baseness in his eyes.
Soon after daylight we left this
anchorage, whose exact position I mention, as it may be of use
to some future voyager in these seas.
The eastern of the three islands
north of Roe's group was just open of the north point of the
bight in which we lay, and a small rocky islet close to the
shore bore South-South-West one mile; we had five fathoms at
low-water in the bight, and twelve immediately outside.
After making a stretch to the
southward for about five miles, in soundings varying from 20 to
25 fathoms, we again closed with the shore, and anchored in five
fathoms, on the south side of Roe's group, three miles from our
A party landed in the afternoon to
procure the requisite observations: the country was not quite so
sterile, nor its face of so rugged a character.
We found nothing worth particular
attention, except a native raft, the first we had yet seen.
It was formed of nine small
poles pegged together, and measured ten feet in length by four
in breadth; the greatest diameter of the largest pole was three
All the poles were of the palm tree,
a wood so light, that one man could carry the whole affair with
the greatest ease.
By it there
was a very rude double-bladed paddle.
From a distant station I looked upon
the dangerous and rapid current, which divides two rocky
islands, and the perils of which are fearfully increased by the
presence of an insulated rock in its centre, past which (its
fury only heightened by the opposition) the torrent hurries with
CHAPTER 1.6. POINT CUNNINGHAM
TO FITZROY RIVER.
NATIVE FIRE AND FOOD.
On landing we found a fire still
burning, near the beach, and beside it a bundle of the bark of
the papyrus tree, in which were carefully packed a quantity of
ground nuts, they were each about three-quarters of an inch
long, and in shape not unlike a kidney potato;* it seemed clear,
judging from the native value of the commodities thus rashly
abandoned, that our arrival had rather taken by surprise these
untutored children of the wilderness: we saw nothing of them
till we had reembarked, when (four or five only in number) they
returned to the beach; and we could perceive that our foot
tracks, upon which they appeared to hold an animated debate,
had, to say the least, mightily puzzled them.
(*Footnote. This esculent appeared
to resemble the warran, or yam, used for food by the native
inhabitants north of Swan River.)
(**Footnote. Centropus phasianellus.
CHAPTER 1.7. THE
FITZROY RIVER TO PORT GEORGE THE FOURTH, AND RETURN TO SWAN
Here for the first time since
leaving the Fitzroy we saw native fires.
One of them was upon an island eight
or nine miles from the main, between which, however, a chain of
smaller ones formed links of communication. These signs of
inhabitants gave us hopes of finding some improvement from the
almost utter sterility that had hitherto prevailed among these
We had as yet seen no traces of
either canoes or rafts, and therefore were not a little curious
to see what mode of conveyance the natives of these parts used.
But perhaps the most interesting
discovery in this bay, was a native raft, which we found near
the beach, in such a position as must have required the
exertions of several men to have placed it there; being heavier
than either of our boats.
In the construction of this raft,
almost everything had been left to nature.
It was framed of the dead trunk of a
mangrove tree, with three distinct stems growing from one root,
about 18 feet long, and 4 1/2 broad.
The roots at one end closely
entwined, as is the habit of the tree, formed a sufficient
bulwark at the stem, while an elbow in the centre of the trunk,
served the same purpose at the stern: a platform of small poles,
well covered with dried grass, gave a sufficient flooring to
this rude specimen of a raft.
I could not survey it without
allowing my thoughts to carry me away in pleasing reflections
upon the gradual progress of human ingenuity by the advance of
which, the same intellect that first contents itself with the
mere floating of the single tree, at length shapes a forest into
timbers and launches the floating fortress in triumph on the
RETURN TO PORT USBORNE.
We were now about 40 miles in a direct line from Port Usborne,
and perhaps 70 by the winding course we were obliged to follow;
only two days' provisions remained, and as we were still
deficient of material for the chart of this archipelago, I was
reluctantly obliged to abandon the idea of attempting to reach
The mainland we had explored, since leaving Port Usborne, may be
described as forming eight bays, varying in depth from three to
eight miles, and in width from two to five; their general trend
is East-South-East; many islets skirt their shores, and almost
more than can be counted fill their mouths.
VISITED BY A NATIVE.
We had just completed our surveying operations, when two of the
boat's crew came to report a visit from one of the natives, and
concluding others were at hand, hastened up to strengthen our
party; they said their sable visitor came to them without any
enticing, no offers of red or blue handkerchiefs, or some gaudy
bauble that seldom fails to catch the eye of a savage- and
without the slightest indication of fear.
When I pointed to the fresh water, he said slowly and
distinctly, "Yampee, Yampee."
With the first grey of the morning we left Bathurst Island, on
our return to the southward.
Whilst passing inside the cluster of isles of slate formation,
we heard a "halloa," and on looking in the direction from whence
it proceeded, a native was observed on a raft: the boat's course
was immediately altered so as to cut him off should he attempt
to escape, but to my great surprise he paddled towards us with
all possible haste.
THE NATIVE YAMPEE.
He was soon alongside, and with great satisfaction we at once
recognized our strange friend of yesterday, who amongst the
boat's crew, went by the sobriquet of Yampee.
He again made use of the word Yampee according to our
orthography, and after repeating it several times, I offered him
some water, which he very eagerly accepted, twice emptying a
canister that had originally held 4 pounds of preserved meat;
this afforded me additional proof of Yampee being the word the
natives of these parts use for water.
At Swan River, the native name for water is gab-by, which
differs so much as to lead us to suppose the dialect of the two
places is quite distinct.
This supposition is also borne out by the fact, that Miago, the
native of Swan River we had on board, could never understand the
language spoken by his countrymen, on the western shore of
We found our new acquaintance as yesterday, perfectly naked, the
raft he was on was in every respect similar to that previously
seen upon Roe's Group, with this slight exception, that between
each pole several small pieces of wood were inserted so as to
make the flooring of the raft almost smooth.
Into the large end of the centre, and largest pole, six long
pegs were driven, forming a kind of basket in which were secured
his means for procuring fire; they consisted of two pieces of
white flint, and some tinder rudely manufactured from the inner
bark of the papyrus tree.
He used in paddling a short spear, sharp at each end, and struck
the water alternately on either side; in this primitive manner
he contrived to make way with a rapidity that astonished us all.
He had two spears on the raft, besides the one he used for
paddling; one of them was about 12 feet long, also pointed at
each end, though not barbed; and a small stick, similar to that
used by other natives for throwing at birds, and small animals.
As well as we could understand by his signs, it appeared that he
had been anxiously waiting our arrival, and had pushed off from
the main to intercept the boat, on our leaving Bathurst Island.
We threw him a line, and he immediately comprehended our
intention, and its use, by at once making fast to the raft; an
instance of confident reliance upon our good intentions, which
reflected much credit upon the unsuspicious openness of his own
character, and which I should have exceedingly regretted by any
act of ours to abuse.
PARTING WITH THE NATIVE.
Had not the distance and our scant supply of food, rendered such
a step imprudent, I should have been very glad to have towed him
to the ship.
I really believe he would have trusted himself with us, for that
or a much longer distance; but this could not be, and therefore,
after endeavouring to make him understand that we should sleep
some distance to the south, where there was a larger boat,
alluding to the ship, we filled his basket with bread, gave him
as much water as he could drink, and bidding him farewell,
reluctantly cut him adrift: I shall not soon forget the
sorrowful expression of his countenance, when this apparently
inhospitable act was performed; it did not seem however to
quench his regard for his new friends, for so long as we could
see him he was hard at work paddling in our wake.
I noticed that the beads given him yesterday were gone; this
fact, coupled with the smokes seen during the day, satisfied me
that he had friends in the neighbourhood, to whom I hoped he
would report favourably of his new acquaintances; we had
certainly endeavoured to obtain his goodwill.
Simple-hearted, trusting savage, farewell!
Towards the morning there was a
South-East breeze which brought the thermometer down to 76
degrees; it generally ranged between 80 and 96 degrees.
The large bay discovered on our way
to the southward now became the point of interest, and as
daylight closed in the boats were secured in a small sandy cove,
just within its southern point, where there were several native
rafts, constructed precisely in the same manner as those seen in
King's Sound, from which circumstance we called the place Raft
Immediately over it was the high land first seen in coming down
the bay; huge masses were rent from its lofty frowning crags, on
which the rays of the setting sun produced the most grotesque
A beautiful stream of water fell into the sea, in leaping
cascades, half a mile inside the cove.
Several rock kangaroos were seen on the heights; and after
securing observations with some early stars, for latitude, which
placed Raft Point in 16 degrees 4 minutes South, we tried an
experiment to get a shot at the kangaroos, by setting fire to
the grass and small wood growing at the base, and in the
interstices of the rocks.
ANECDOTES OF MIAGO.
While our return to Swan River was thus baffled and delayed by
the long and almost unbroken continuance of foul winds, it
afforded some diversion to watch the countenance and conduct of
Miago, who was as anxious as anyone on board for the sight of
his native land.
He would stand gazing steadily and in silence over the sea, and
then sometimes, perceiving that I watched him, say to me, "Miago
sing, by and by northern men wind jump up:" then would he
station himself for hours at the lee-gangway, and chant to some
imaginary deity an incantation or prayer to change the opposing
I could never rightly learn to whom this rude melody was
addressed; for if anyone approached him near enough to overhear
the words, he became at once silent; but there was a mournful
and pathetic air running through the strain, that rendered it by
no means unpleasing; though doubtless it owed much of its effect
to the concomitant circumstances.
The rude savage--separated from all his former companions, made
at once an intimate and familiar witness of some of the wonders
of civilization, carried by his new comrades to their very
country, and brought face to face with his traditionary foes,
the dreaded northern men, and now returning to recount to his
yet ruder brethren the wonders he had witnessed- could not fail
to interest the least imaginative.
Yet Miago had a decided and most inexplicable advantage over all
on board, and that in a matter especially relating to the
science of navigation: he could indicate at once and correctly
the exact direction of our wished-for harbour, when neither sun
nor stars were shining to assist him.
He was tried frequently, and under very varying circumstances,
but strange as it may seem, he was invariably right.
This faculty- though somewhat analogous to one I have heard
ascribed to the natives of North America- had very much
surprised me when exercised on shore, but at sea, out of the
sight of land, it seemed beyond belief, as assuredly it is
beyond explanation: but I have sometimes thought that some such
power must have been possessed by those adventurous seamen who,
long before the discovery of the compass, ventured upon distant
and hazardous voyages.
EXPLORATION OF THE SOUTHERN BRANCH
OF THE ADELAIDE.
MEET A CANOE.
Proceeding upwards, we met a party of natives about seven miles
from the mouth, in a very pretty bark canoe, fifteen feet long,
and about two deep.
The bark was sewn together with much neatness, and it was
altogether the most artistic piece of workmanship I had seen
among the Aborigines of Australia.
It was the last of that description we met with in this
direction, for we did not find canoes in use with the natives to
the westward of Clarence Strait, but only rafts, a fact alluded
to in an earlier portion of the work.
Their canoes, about thirty of
which were hauled upon the beach, were from twenty-five to
thirty feet long, and very narrow, with outriggers
projecting ten or twelve feet from each side, and supporting
a piece of buoyant wood to give stability.
They carried one large mat-sail, but did not appear to sail
As soon as we had satisfied our
curiosity on the beach, old Lomba led the way to the village
on the crest of the hill.
The ascent commenced close to the landing place by a flight
of steps rudely formed by logs of wood laid across a narrow
path cut in the hillside, which brought us to within forty
or fifty feet of the summit.
After which we had to climb two ladders, made of hard red
wood richly carved, placed almost perpendicularly against
In a recess under the upper step we noticed four small idols
that bore a strong resemblance to those of the South Sea
BOAT-BUILDING AT KI ILLI.
We had also an opportunity of
seeing the boats, which are built in great numbers from the
excellent timber with which all the islands of this group
They are much used by the traders frequenting the Arru
Islands, and were highly spoken of for their durability and
The boats we saw, though they varied considerably in size,
were all built on the same plan, having a considerable beam,
a clean entrance and run, a flat floor, and the stem and
stern post projecting considerably above the gunwales.
They were all built of planks cut out of solid timber to the
form required, dowelled together by wooden pegs, as a cooper
fastens the head of a cask, and the whole afterwards
strengthened by timbers, lashed with split rattan to solid
cleats left for the purpose in each plank, during the
process of hewing it into shape.
Four of the smallest of these
boats were purchased for the use of the colony, for about 2
1/2 dollars each, and were found to answer very well.
A sandy spit
connects Magnetical Island on the south side with the main,
and must be sufficiently shoal at low water to allow the
natives to ford over; for we found no canoes with those we met
on the island, who were numerous and apparently very well
Although not a
large race, they were in very good condition; part of their
food, is the native yam, called warran in Western Australia.
The birds on
the island are common to other parts; and the wallaby, of
which Mr. Bynoe shot three, are light coloured.
In the morning
we found that the island was occupied by a party of natives
from Torres Strait.
which were furnished with outriggers, were hauled up on the
beach, and their spears were deposited in the bushes around,
ready for immediate use; but, although they seemed to suspect
our friendly intentions towards them at first, no disturbance
occurred, and some were prevailed upon to come on board.
recognized the drawing of a Murray Island canoe, in Flinders'
Voyage, and constantly kept repeating the word toolic,
meaning iron, in the Murray Island language.
Some light may
be thrown on the migration of the aboriginal inhabitants of
Australia, by tracing the parts of the coast on which canoes
are in use.
It has already
been mentioned, that we had not seen any westward of Clarence
Strait, neither were they in use in the bottom of the Gulf of
Carpentaria, nor on the south coast.*
assistance of these and similar facts, we may hereafter be
enabled to discover the exact direction in which the streams
of population have flowed over the continent.
But I am not
prepared to agree entirely with Mr. Eyre when he concludes, as
I have stated, from the fact of the rite of circumcision
having been found on the south and north-west coasts, and on
the Gulf of Carpentaria, that there exists any peculiar
connection between the tribes inhabiting those several points.
enterprising traveller moreover thinks that the idea he has
started goes far towards refuting the theory of an inland sea,
another presumption against which he maintains to be the hot
winds that blow from the interior.
[Footnote] *An inference may
be drawn from the parts of the shore on which canoes are in
use, to show that the migrations of the natives, so far
southwards, have been along the coast.
The raft they
use is precisely the same in make and size on the whole extent
of the North-west coast.)
completing the survey of the southern and western portion of
this harbour, we returned to the ship, where soon afterwards
Captain Wickham also arrived, having found Patterson Bay to be
a good port.
It trended in
south ten miles, and E. S. E. the same distance, forming quite
an inner haven, which was name after Mr. Bynoe.
At the turning leading from the outer to the inner harbour
they came suddenly in view of a raft making across, a distance
of three miles, on which were two women with several children,
whilst four or five men were swimming alongside, towing it and
supporting themselves by means of a log of wood across their
the boat they instantly struck out for the land leaving the
women on the raft.
For some time
the latter kept their position, waiting until the boat got
quite near, when they gave utterance to a dreadful yell, and
assuming at the same time a most demoniacal aspect, plunged
into the water as if about to abandon the children 'to their
however; despite the dread fear they appeared to entertain of
the white man,
affection was strong within them, and risking all to save
their offspring, they began to tow the raft with all their
strength towards the shore.
on the part of the women to their little ones, was in strong
contrast with the utter want of feeling shewn by the men
towards both mothers and children.
Wickham now, no doubt to their extreme consternation, pulled
after the men, and drove them back to the raft.
Some dived and
tried thus to escape the boat, while others grinned
ferociously, and appeared to hope, by dint of hideous grimaces
- such as are only suggested even to a savage by the last
stage of fear - to terrify the white men from approaching.
however, they were all driven back to the raft, which was then
towed across the harbour for them; a measure which they only
were able to approve of when they had landed, and fear had
forbearance of our party surprised them, for from their
terrified looks and manner, when swimming with all their
strength from the raft, they must have apprehended a fate at
least as terrible as that of being eaten.
itself was quite a rude affair, being formed of small bundles
of wood lashed together, without any shape or form, quite
different from any we had seen before.
Bynoe Harbour was found to terminate in three
AT PORT DARWIN]
branching off between N. E. and S.E., the largest of which led
into fresh water, but in small detached pools, which seperated
from the salt, by a shelf of red porous sandstone, and which;
two miles further became entirely lost in the rocks.
appearance of the gum-trees and occasional clump of palms,
which had pleasingly succeeded the mangroves, as they
advanced, assured Captain Wickham that there was fresh water
they had carried their researches further, they would have
found these signs reappear again, the presence of which the
reader will recollect I inferred from seeing the ibis flocking
from the south-west up the south inlet in Port Darwin; the
west inlet of which is only one mile distant from the
north-east creek in the head of Bynoe Harbour.
the country is not in its present parched and thirsty state,
all these are fresh at their heads.
J. Lort, Stanley., Owen:
an account of the coasts and rivers explored and
surveyed during the voyage
H.M.S. Beagle in the years
command of the Lords Commissioners of the
a Narrative of Captain Owen Stanley's visits to the
islands in the Arafura Sea
T. and W. Boone, London, 1846.
- Sue Asscher, 2004.
Geoff Cater (2013-2014) : J.
Lort Stokes : Swimming, Floats and Rafts, NW